Ali Farka Touré Didn't Play the Blues

That’s not what this is. This is our African tribal heritage.
Calling it blues is your problem."

- Ali Farka Touré to Ry Cooder during the recording of Talking Timbuktu (1994).

The most common trope surrounding the music of the late Ali Farka Touré, one of the great modern musicians to come out of Mali, frames his music in terms of the blues.

Do a cursory search online and the top ten articles on his life will all discuss his music this way. Martin Scorsese enshrined this blues narrative in his documentary Feel Like Going Home, where he takes Corey Harris to Mali to visit Ali Farka Touré and dubs his music the “DNA of the blues.”

For the same reason you wouldn’t refer to Robert Johnson’s music as southern rock and roll, Touré’s music is not desert blues. It’s Malian music with deep roots in the musical culture of his home country.

The music that Touré drew from predates the modern blues by over a thousand years. To equate it with a more familiar, more American style of music is to marginalize it. That comparison robs us of any chance to explore the older musical traditions less familiar to people outside of Africa.

By taking a closer look at the music Touré grew up with, we can appreciate his music more deeply.

From Kora, Ngoni, and Njarka to Guitar

Touré’s collaborations with Malian griot Toumani Diabaté are more instructive around where his music comes from. Diabaté plays the 21-stringed kora, providing a historical lineage of stringed instrument music in Mali.

So much of Touré’s guitar music is there: the drones, the hypnotic repeating patterns, all of it accented by grandiose flourishes.

Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté - Debe live at Bozar

Another instrument that is crucial to hearing the roots of Touré’s music is the ngoni, a stringed lute that has many variations but is commonly seen in this four-stringed configuration in Mali:

Mali Music - Moussa Kanoute (n'goni)

Touré himself also played instruments other than the guitar, including the njarka, a one-stringed violin heard on this track:

Ali Farka Touré - (Njarka) Gambari

Regional Influences

Niafunké, the town in Mali that Touré called home, is in the middle of the landlocked country. The capital Bamako is in the southwest, and farther north and east you get into Saharan Africa. It is a cultural crossroads, something reflected in the many languages of Touré’s music: Songhay, Fulfulde, Tamasheq, and most commonly, Bambara.

In Touré’s electric music you can hear pieces of the Tuareg style that came into popular US consciousness with the rise of the band Tinariwen. Take this 1984 live recording of Touré as an example:

Ali Farka Touré - Farri / Wakata Gouna

The deep hitched groove and searing electric guitar has little to do with the blues harmonically or rhythmically. He may be taking the physical music-making tools of the West, but his palette is all his own.

Mali’s Musical Exports and Imports

Mali - a French colony from the late 19th century until gaining independence in 1960 - gave birth to a rich music scene in the years following independence. In addition to sponsoring bands with government funds, there was a state-run record label, Mali Kunkan, that released music documenting Malian culture. That music scene bridged the country’s deep musical traditions with the modern sounds and instruments of the West.

Le Ken-Star De Sikasso - Hodi Hu Yenyan

This is one example of the thoroughly modern music Touré would have been hearing as he came of age musically and began to develop his own voice on guitar.

Touré also had a deep respect and love for Western music, including R&B and the blues. In one memorable scene in the great documentary A Visit to Ali Farka Touré, Touré sits in reverence listening to Otis Redding perform a live version of "Try A Little Tenderness."

Touré’s highly productive mid-period is a case study in blending musical influences from different cultures. His classic 1990 album The River is a great example:

Ali Farka Touré - The River

Ali Farka Touré was a giant in the rich musical and cultural history of Mali and a guiding light for musicians of any stripe around the world. His pursuit of honest music - on his own and through numerous cross-cultural collaborations - and his relaxed yet strong poise as an artist is something we all can aspire to.

Take some time to dive into his discography. While you listen to Touré’s music, meet it on its own terms. You might be surprised what it opens up for your own playing.

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